Jul 22, 2020

Federal 'troops' head into U.S. cities.

Federal 'troops' head into U.S. cities.

Will it improve or worsen the civil unrest?

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Today’s read: 10 minutes.

Trump’s threats to send federal agents into U.S. cities, a question about Tangle’s format and your weekly Blindspot Report.

Chad Wolf (right), acting Secretary of Homeland Security, speaks at the White House. Photo: The White House


On Monday, I called Washington Gov. Jay Inslee the “former” governor of Washington state. I don’t know what happened in my brain to drop that in there, but Inslee — who had a brief bid for president last year — is still the governor in Washington. I noticed and updated the error in the archive after sending the email, before all my Washingtonian brethren called it out, but I pressed send, so it counts. Relatedly, I’m starting to think about gamifying these corrections and giving out prizes to people who catch them, that way it’ll be more fun and less infuriating for me.

This is the 11th Tangle correction in its eleven-month existence. I track corrections in an effort to be transparent and plan to stop counting when the number becomes embarrassing.

Quick hits.

  1. President Trump held his first coronavirus briefing in months yesterday and urged Americans to wear masks while also warning that the pandemic is likely to get worse before it gets better. The press conference came the same day the U.S. reported 1,000 coronavirus deaths in a day for the first time since early June. Trump also made news by repeatedly sending well wishes to Ghislaine Maxwell, the woman facing federal charges for helping Jeffrey Epstein recruit and sexually abuse underage girls.
  2. Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder, a Republican, was arrested yesterday for his involvement in a “sprawling, $60 million bribery scheme” that prompted many of Ohio’s top Republicans to call for his resignation. Householder allegedly rose to power in the midst of the scheme and then used that power to try to save two of the state’s nuclear power plants. Householder told reporters while leaving federal court that he did not plan to leave office.
  3. The White House and Senate Republicans continue to struggle to agree on how to handle the next wave of coronavirus relief. Tangle covered the fractures yesterday, and Politico is now reporting that the two sides “have yet to find agreement on big portions” of the soon-to-be-released proposal. At the top of the list are the president’s desire for a payroll tax cut and whether to re-up the $600 a week federal unemployment benefit.
  4. At least 15 people were wounded in a drive-by shooting near a South Side, Chicago, funeral home on Tuesday. Police could not determine if the shootings were gang-related or if the shooters and victims knew each other, but some of the mourners attending the funeral exchanged fire with the vehicle as it drove away. President Trump has vowed to send federal forces into Chicago to stop a rising tide of violence across the city.
  5. The White House demanded the abrupt closure of the Chinese Consulate in Houston, Texas, saying China’s interference in American affairs and its intellectual property theft made the consulate a liability. The State Department accused China of “massive illegal spying” operations throughout the U.S. Beijing called the escalation outrageous and unprecedented. The order came on the same day indictments of two Chinese hackers were unveiled in Washington D.C.

What D.C. is talking about.

Federal law enforcement in U.S. cities. On Monday, I answered a reader question about the Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) agents who were making arrests across Portland, Oregon. As news of those encounters spread, President Trump threatened to send federal law enforcement into other cities across the country, including Chicago.

In the first 24 hours after news broke of the White House’s plan to expand its federal crackdown beyond Portland, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot threatened to sue Trump if he tried to send troops there without her permission. But on Tuesday, she acknowledged the city would be working with federal agents, hitting a markedly different tone after having a conversation with U.S. Attorney John Lausch, a former colleague who told her the agents would work alongside local police.

News of Lightfoot’s changing stance, just as Trump says he plans to follow a similar formula in New York City, Philadelphia, Detroit and other major urban centers, has set off questions about the wisdom and legality of sending federal agents into major cities to help quell civil unrest or manage protests.

Right now, the response is being managed by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) — created after the 9/11 attacks — which is a consolidation of agencies responsible for homeland security. Included under the DHS are the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (UCIS), U.S. Coast Guard, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the U.S. Secret Service.

These are the agencies popping up in U.S. cities now, under a directive from Chad Wolf, the acting Secretary of Homeland Security, who says the mishmash of U.S. Marshals, CBP agents, The Border Patrol Tactical Unit (BORTAC), U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the U.S. Coast Guard that have been spotted on the ground in Portland are there to protect federal property and monuments.

What the right is saying.

Many on the right are sympathetic to concerns over federal overreach, but supporters of the president have argued that Democratic leaders in cities like Portland, Chicago, New York City and Philadelphia have lost control of their cities, and at some point, the federal government’s job is to step in and help. Shootings are up 253% over this time last year in New York, violent crime is skyrocketing in Chicago, and organized rioters in Portland are wreaking havoc on federal property, which gives the feds cause to protect it. Not only that, but the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) and other federal agencies are already in most cities in America.

In The National Review, David Harsanyi wrote a piece that summed up much of the right’s view on protests both in Portland and across the U.S., saying it only takes a “sliver” of the population to transform downtown areas into a mess and create quality of life issues. He conceded there are “legitimate concerns” about how law enforcement conducts itself and called for federal agents to display badge numbers and identification. Still, he cautioned the “reports” of Portlanders being snatched up on the street is really redundant coverage of one or two arrests.

“There’s little doubt that if alt-right activists had occupied a few city blocks in Seattle or tried to firebomb a federal courthouse in Portland, we’d be in for feverish wall-to-wall media coverage, engulfed in a national conversation about the perils of right-wing radicalism,” he wrote. “Every elected Republican would be asked to personally denounce the extremists to make sure they take implicit ownership of the problem… If mayors do nothing to stop anarchists from tearing down federal monuments or from defacing, vandalizing, and attempting to burn down federal buildings, the feds have every right to dispatch teams of agents to restore order.”

Chad Wolf, who is overseeing the DHS response across the country, promised that the federal forces “will not retreat” and defended the use of unmarked vehicles, saying they are used in every law enforcement agency in America. He also said marked vehicles “have become targets” of rioters so there are “rather logistical reasons to use” them.

“My message is simple: If you’re looking to peacefully protest in Portland, the department respects your right to do so,” Wolf said. “Please do so away from the violent activity that’s taking place near the courthouse on a nightly basis, for your own safety. If you are a violent rioter looking to inflict damage on federal property or law enforcement officers, you need to find another line of work.”

What the left is saying.

This is just making it worse. In Oregon, Gov. Kate Brown and Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler have asked Trump to remove the troops. The attorney general of Oregon is suing the federal government, and a local lawsuit says the federal agents are violating Portlanders’ 10th amendment rights by “engaging in police activities designated to local and state governments.”

Lori Lightfoot, the Chicago Mayor, pledged that the situation there won’t resemble Portland and that federal agents would help provide resources to plug into existing agencies that already work with the city, like the FBI. She promised the city would be “vigilant” against abuses of power.

Others are asking how this can be a job for the Department of Homeland Security. In The New York Times, Jamelle Bouie argued that — unlike past interventions of federal agents to quell civil unrest — President Trump’s security force was “created out of public view, using loopholes and expansive interpretations of the law. The reason Customs and Border Protection can be used to police a protest in Portland is, for example, because the Department of Homeland Security can supplement law enforcement from one agency with personnel from another.”

“Apparently cobbled together using personnel from Customs and Border Protection, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the Transportation Security Administration and the Coast Guard, these ‘rapid deployment teams’ are formally tasked with securing federal buildings from graffiti and vandalism in tandem with the Federal Protective Service, which is ordinarily responsible for the job,” Bouie added. “But they’re being used to suppress protests in what appears to be an election year gambit by the Trump administration to create images of disorder and chaos on which the president can then campaign.”

The Washington Post editorial board took a slightly different angle, arguing that the right to protest is enshrined in the Constitution but that the "vandalism and violence” that have popped up amidst mostly peaceful protests in Oregon are “antithetical to public order, a blow to blameless property owners and, as a political matter, a gift to President Trump." As a result, the Post argued Trump “has seized on the disorder in Portland to deflect attention from the pandemic and to exploit the country’s deepening tribal divisions, which have served his political purposes so well.”

My take.

Every time I write a sentence about protesters being mostly peaceful, someone emails me a link to videos of rioting and looting. Every time I write about the harmful rioting and looting, someone sends me a link to videos of peaceful protests being beaten by police. So I’m just going to say up front that the violence, vandalism and rioting in Portland are at once greatly exaggerated and wholly unacceptable. The violence in Chicago is real but probably won’t be fixed by the feds. And things in New York City, Detroit and Philadelphia are calm now. The “chaos” in those cities has been benign for weeks (if not months).

Instead, I’m going to focus on the debate here that I believe is most valuable: sending in federal agents is not going to help. And the way this is happening shouldn’t be legal in the first place.

I’ll give you a simple example. If Trump announces he’s sending federal agents to New York City, and actually tries to execute that plan, there will be a slew of social media posts about it. Instagram stories, tweets, Facebook posts. Every single anti-Trump political group, Black Lives Matter affiliate and grassroots liberal organization will organize a response.

This will guarantee that federal troops arriving here are met by thousands of protesters in the streets of New York City, which I feel confident will immediately bring back out many of the looters and rioters who have been off the streets for weeks. To what end? So we can watch more violence, vandalism, fighting and street clashes on the news while gigantic marches of peaceful protests are largely ignored?

We saw this already in Portland. News of unmarked federal troops did not quell civil unrest. It re-energized it. It brought more protesters into the streets. It reinvigorated support for the people hurling batteries and rocks at law enforcement. It reaffirmed the premise of the furthest left anti-fascists that Trump himself is a fascist who is willing to “dominate” the street protests of Americans with unidentifiable, well-armed, fully-funded troops whose day job is conducting raids on Mexican drug cartels.

This is not helping. A recently leaked memo from the DHS, the very branch overseeing the surge of federal agents, admits the armed camo-clad fighters on the ground don’t have any training in riot control or mass demonstrations. They’ve also been authorized to collect information on protesters they deem a “threat to monuments.” That sounds a lot like spying on people exercising their right to protest to me.

Some have argued that the DHS has authority in Portland because it has a port of entry, it’s near the ocean and it’s a hotbed for immigration. Same goes for New York City and Chicago and other places Trump wants to send his “task force.” And it’s true. Thanks to expanding, unchecked federal power, the DHS has authority over two out of every three Americans, as this map demonstrates:

That doesn’t make it right. The notion is absurd. The law is broken. The Department of Homeland Security was not dreamt up to keep U.S. citizens from pulling down statues of confederate soldiers or “Antifa” from spray painting a federal courthouse. It was dreamt up to prevent another 9/11, to shore up the borders, to protect Americans from outside threats. Now it’s being used to overrule local law enforcement, against the wishes of states and cities, and being used as a bludgeon by the president to escalate tensions in cities run by Democrats that are already reeling.

This won’t help. The idea that it will is detached from reality. Local police in Portland need to do their jobs: protect businesses, protect private and federal property, arrest violent protesters and vandals and give space to the peaceful protesters to exercise their rights. Heed the calls for reform if you want to quell the unrest. Don’t respond to cries of abuse of power by sending in more power. I only hope the president, those local leaders and the DHS realize these things before it gets worse. If they don’t, you can bet it will.

Your blindspot.

As part of a partnership with Ground News, an app and website that uses data to rate the political lean of stories and news outlets, I’ll be featuring parts of Ground News’s “Blindspot Report” in Tangle. The Blindspot Report tells you what stories folks on the left and right miss each week because of their biased news diets.

The left missed a story this week about how top conservative and pro-life news websites were temporarily missing from Google search results.

The right missed a story this week about NFL players pleading with the league to address health and safety concerns over COVID-19.

Want to check out Ground News’s bias ratings, blindspot reports or other news sources? Click here.

Your questions, answered.

Reminder: You can ask a question (or reach me anytime) by simply replying to this email. Give it a try!

Q: It seems like the mission of Tangle is to build a better understanding between Americans. It strikes me, though, that you do “what the left is saying” versus “what the right is saying,” often reinforcing the idea there are just two sides. How does that line up with the larger ethos/mission of Tangle?

— Brandi, Dallas, TX

Tangle: This is not the first time I’ve gotten this question, but it is the first time I’ve addressed it in a newsletter. At the risk of doing too much navel-gazing (I’ve answered a couple reader questions about Tangle that were not about political issues in the last week), I want to address this because it is coming up a lot more often recently.

On the surface, I think this is a really fair critique. The format of Tangle does seem to reinforce the idea of “two sides,” and I often say the newsletter “elevates the best arguments from both sides” on the big story of the day. The simple answer is I do this because it’s a framework Americans are familiar with: right, left and people in between.

It’s unfortunate that Tangle functions in this paradigm since, in many ways, I’m trying to break down the constant drum of pandering, misinformation, culture wars and left vs. right nonsense that permeates the political world. But, by operating inside this framework, I actually think Tangle does something more important: it shows the diversity of thought and common ground that exists amidst the lines that are already drawn. And it also demonstrates true balance.

Take today’s issue. If Tangle were formatted in a different way, I could break down the arguments as “the people supportive of sending federal agents into U.S. cities” vs. “the people who are not supportive of it.” If I did it that way, the resulting content would end up being a bunch of folks on the right and a bunch of folks on the left and their corresponding arguments that reinforce those stances. It would create the same divide, except I’d be broad brushing their points entirely and would likely be unable to acknowledge the nuance of the points they’re each making.

Instead, by working in the “left vs. right” framework, I can show that a staunch conservative like David Harsanyi (someone on the right) acknowledges that there are legitimate concerns from the left over the federal agents in Portland. I can also show that Lori Lightfoot (someone on the left), a very liberal mayor, can be supportive of getting federal help from Trump to address violence in her city through cooperation. To me, this is far more valuable: it shows there is more nuance and common ground between the two sides than you might think from only watching Fox News or reading HuffPost.

Funnily enough, early Tangle subscribers might remember that the newsletter used to be formatted as “What Democrats are saying” and “What Republicans are saying.” I did away with that framework because I thought the two-party system framing left out so many independents, progressives, centrists and Libertarians who didn’t identify with either of those parties but instead leaned left or right on specific issues. In the existing format, I can tell you what I think are the best arguments from the left side and the best arguments from the right, while also highlighting places where they may agree and offering my own examination of their positions.

It’s a tough code to crack, and partisanship is a powerful drug, but I think this framework is the easiest way to have a jumping off point readers can relate to. And it’s also the best way to highlight people and ideas I believe are important from across the political spectrum. If I think (or hear) of a better way down the road, maybe I’ll change it — but for now, I think it’s the most impactful way to cover what’s happening in our country right now.

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A story that matters.

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